ProPublica Retracts Report that Trump's CIA Pick Oversaw Waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah

'This error was particularly unfortunate because it muddied an important national debate about Haspel and the CIA’s recent history'

Gina Haspel / YouTube Screenshot
March 15, 2018

The nonprofit journalism site ProPublica posted a correction Thursday of a 2017 report that Gina Haspel oversaw the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah.

Haspel has been nominated by President Donald Trump to take over the CIA in place of Mike Pompeo, who in turn has been nominated to be the next Secretary of State to replace Rex Tillerson.

ProPublica initially reported on Feb. 22, 2017—after Haspel was nominated to be CIA Deputy Director—that she oversaw the "black site" base in Thailand when Zubaydah, a suspected leader of the terror group al Qaeda, was waterboarded, and it also said she mocked his suffering.

"Neither of these assertions is correct and we retract them," the new report states. "It is now clear that Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of Zubaydah ended."

The correction continues:

Our account of Haspel’s actions was drawn in part from declassified agency cables and CIA-reviewed books which referred to the official overseeing Zubaydah’s interrogation at a secret prison in Thailand as "chief of base." The books and cables redacted the name of the official, as is routinely done in declassified documents referring to covert operations.

The Trump administration named Haspel to the CIA’s No. 2 job in early February 2017. Soon after, three former government officials told ProPublica that Haspel was chief of base in Thailand at the time of Zubaydah’s waterboarding.

We also found an online posting by John Kirakou, a former CIA counter-terrorism officer, who wrote that "It was Haspel who oversaw the staff" at the Thai prison, including two psychologists who "designed the torture techniques and who actually carried out torture on the prisoners."

The nomination of Haspel this week to head the CIA stirred new controversy about her role in the detention and interrogation of terror suspects, as well as the destruction of videotapes of the interrogation of Zubaydah and another suspect.

One key mistake: a misreading of a passage from CIA contractor James Mitchell's book, which discussed the mockery of Zubaydah and referred to the chief of base in Thailand as both "he" and "she."

"We erroneously assumed that this was an effort by Mitchell or the agency to conceal the gender of the single official involved; it is now clear that Mitchell was referring to two different people," the correction report said.

The original ProPublica report said Haspel accused Zubaydah of faking symptoms under duress, congratulating him to his face on his acting:

At one point, Haspel spoke directly with Zubaydah, accusing him of faking symptoms of physical distress and psychological breakdown. In a scene described in a book written by one of the interrogators, the chief of base came to his cell and "congratulated him on the fine quality of his acting." According to the book, the chief of base, who was identified only by title, said: "Good job! I like the way you’re drooling; it adds realism. I’m almost buying it. You wouldn’t think a grown man would do that."

ProPublica noted that critics of Haspel's nomination have cited the erroneous 2017 story as proof she is unfit to lead the CIA.

Editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg offered an apology to Haspel.

"We at ProPublica hold government officials responsible for their missteps, and we must be equally accountable," he said. "This error was particularly unfortunate because it muddied an important national debate about Haspel and the CIA’s recent history. To her, and to our readers, we can only apologize, correct the record and make certain that we do better in the future."

The correction said it did accurately report Haspel "pushed her bosses to destroy the tapes of Zubaydah’s waterboarding" and was involved in the waterboarding of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.